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Tutoring: Another £1m saved as mentor scheme axed early

A flagship arm of the National Tutoring Programme set up to help poorer pupils with pandemic lost learning was axed six months early due to low demand, saving ministers £1 million.

The academic mentors programme was set up by Teach First during the first year of the major Covid catch-up scheme.

It trained the mentors and placed them in schools serving disadvantaged communities.

But since the contract changed hands, demand has dropped for mentors with only a fifth of the target reached last year, Schools Week can reveal.

A Freedom of Information request by Schools Week shows ministers decided in November to end the £6.8 million contract with firm Cognition Education by March – six months earlier than planned.

The Department for Education said this will save £1 million and “offset other financial pressures”. But schools can continue to use mentors already recruited.

‘Tutoring will plummet’

The DfE confirmed this week it will end funding as planned for the billion-pound NTP in August, with schools expected to use pupil premium cash to continue tutoring.

Nick Brook, chair of the strategic tutoring advisory board, said it “brought the curtain crashing down on the only response of merit from [the government’s] woeful post-covid education recovery plan”.

“Schools will undoubtedly do their utmost to maintain levels of support for their most disadvantaged pupils. But with dwindling resources, it is abundantly clear that this decision will result in the volume of tutoring plummeting.”

Labour has only said it would “explore how tailored support” can help pupils.

Ben Gadsby, head of policy and research at Impetus, an NTP founding partner, added: “We can only hope that when the dust settles after the next election, whoever is in power uses the lessons from the NTP to come up with a better plan to ensuring high quality tutoring is available to all schools who need it.”

Teach First placed 1,124 mentors in 2020-21, exceeding its 1,000 target under a £6.4 million contract.

Dutch HR firm Randstad missed its 3,600 mentor target, but the scheme was split into three contracts, with money going directly to schools as opposed to providers.

‘No obvious incentive’

Cognition Education’s got the contract to recruit and deploy academic mentors to schools.

Last year, the firm had a target of 1,500 mentors, but as of August only 297 had been deployed.

In its first year, DfE paid all of the mentor’s salary, dropping to 95 per cent in the second year. But last year, just 60 per cent of the tutoring hours completed was funded, dropping to 50 per cent this year.

Mentors’ maximum £21,000 salary has not changed since 2022.

Brook said once mentor funding was “rolled into the general tutoring pot, there was no obvious incentive for any school to appoint an academic mentor, over a school-led tutor”.

While it was the “right decision” to cancel the contract early, it would have been “surely better to have not awarded it in the first place, given the anticipated lack of demand and interest”.

Gadsby said “elements of the scheme like academic mentors and tuition partners that were built on good evidence have ultimately been sacrificed in order to reach the largest possible number of pupils in a way that prioritises ease for schools rather than impact on pupils.”

DfE said the route was “less popular”. Schools were given six weeks’ notice before it closed to new applications in January.

A Cognition Education spokesperson said it had run “extensive demand generation campaigns”. Any mentors requested were “placed quickly and efficiently. These schools reported that choosing the route significantly benefitted their pupils.”

Will Chitty, principal at Crewe Engineering and Design UTC, said their academic mentor Sarah has enabled their aged 14 to 19 pupils with primary school reading ages to make 18 months progress within 12 weeks.

The school will fund her role next year, but Chitty is seeking sponsorship for after then.

NTP end is nigh

Professor Becky Francis

DfE said it has “been clear from the outset” that the NTP funding would run out this summer.

It was backed by £1 billion investment over four years, but hundreds of millions of pounds of unused funding was clawed back.

Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation which ran the first year of tuition partners, said the move was “disappointing”.

But the NTP has brought “tutoring to every postcode in the country for the first time – a significant milestone”.

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